Death in Movies That Remind Us to Enjoy Life

A past post discussed cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker and his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Denial of Death.  Here, we consider two movie scenes connected to themes from that book.

As discussed previously, Becker’s book addresses how human beings are unique animals.  Our intelligence allows us to realize we are going to one day die.

That knowledge of infinite death is overwhelming, so human beings adapt various ways of suppressing the knowledge.  We buy material things, we follow sports teams, and we join clubs.  Also, we attach ourselves to groups, cultural items, strong political leaders, and things that appear to give us a subconscious feeling of immortality.

Becker argued that some of the ways we suppress our subconscious fears of death are unhealthy.  He reasoned that a better way to live is with conscious understanding of our situation.  In Denial of Death, he wrote that whatever humans do “has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything.”

Some songs illustrate an aspect of this point:  if you consciously realize your days are numbered, you may better evaluate and spend your time on what is important in your life.  Two movie scenes illustrate a similar point.

In Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays a teacher at an all-boys school.  In this scene, he attempts to get the students to confront their own mortality, hoping that if they realize their time is precious, they will better use the time they have.

Woody Allen has often discussed how Becker’s work has influenced his movies. In Annie Hall, there is a scene in a book store where Alvy (Woody Allen) gives Becker’s Denial of Death to Annie (Diane Keaton).

But another Allen movie sums up an aspect of Becker’s book in song. In this scene from Woody Allen’s musical, Everyone Says I Love You, the guest of honor at a funeral reminds the attendees of the fleeting nature of life.

So go enjoy yourself. Carpe diem. It’s later than you think.

What is your favorite movie about death? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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  • Mork and Happier Days
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    Mork and Happier Days

    The world is saddened today by the news that Robin Williams has passed away. He was such a part of our lives that everyone has their own favorite movie scenes or performances, and I cannot add much that you already do not know or that you cannot find elsewhere.

    But Williams is one of the few performers where I remember the first moment I saw him. And I was blown away. As a kid turning on Happy Days, a show that was in its fifth season and showing signs of old age, I suddenly saw something completely new. This strange alien character called Mork and the actor playing him was one of the funniest things I had ever seen. The next day at school, everyone was talking about him and his appearance on the Happy Days episode called “My Favorite Orkan.” Here is a scene with Henry Winkler as Fonzie and Robin Williams as Mork.

    Robin Williams and Mork, of course, got their own spinoff series which I followed until that one went into its own old age. In many ways, I feel Williams and I grew up together, as I enjoyed his juvenile antics but then got to appreciate his more serious adult work in movies I’ve written about in different contexts like Dead Poets Society (1989), Insomnia (2003), and the underrated World’s Greatest Dad (2009).

    It is very sad to hear how he passed, but I am very thankful he lived and gave us so much. Rest in Peace. Na-nu Na-nu.

    What is your first memory of Robin Williams? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    O Me, Does That Apple Commercial About Poetry Sound Familiar?

    You may have seen Apple’s new commercial for the iPad. The commercial romanticizes the electronic product, showing how people around the world use it to achieve their dreams — while a familiar voice talks about poetry and quotes Walt Whitman.

    The voiceover is from Robin Williams, and you might also recognize the words. The voiceover is taken from the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, which was directed by Peter Weir. It is a wonderful scene about the importance of poetry. Here is the original scene.

    The Whitman quote is from the poem “O Me! O Life!“: “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” The poem appeared in Leaves of Grass.

    As a fan of the movie who was moved by the teacher’s speech, I am not sure what I think of it being transformed into a commercial. I am not sure Walt Whitman really meant that we should go buy a commercial product. But maybe the commercial will inspire someone who has not seen the movie, so who am I to judge?

    What will your verse be? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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